Sunday, November 9, 2014

Communicating with Your Players: Foundation for Success

Coaches must be able to communicate effectively for their team to succeed. Whether it is a non-verbal gesture, a guttural moan, or a heartfelt monologue, effective communication is necessary to teach and to create a sense of teamwork. And if done well, it can provide the motivational push that drives a player to elevate his or her game and compete in games where they might be overmatched. Excellent communication also improves preparation during practice and can give a coach insight into the players’ attitudes and understanding of her goals for the team.

One form of communication that is too often overlooked, or avoided, is the one on one meeting between player and coach. I'm not referring to comments made by the coach in the heat of the moment, or the "teachable moments" that occur during practice and in games, but rather a “private sit down” before or after practice, or during the school day.  

I advise every coach to conduct these meetings, regardless of whether it is in college, in high school, or even at the youth level. These meetings should be thought of as conversations and not lectures where the coach gives his "spiel" and then simply asks the player if he understands and has any comment or question. The coach has as much to learn from his players as the player learns from his coach.

These conversations can be in some part instructional, offering advice on a player's game, focusing on the positive but also pointing out areas for improvement. But I envision these conversations in a much more expansive way, and in fact a good conversation will allow the player to give her observations on everything from how
practices are run, to playing time, to how fair the coaching staff has been in the treatment of players, even asking players what they think about how well the games are being managed.

This sort of conversation might be tough on some coaches' egos, but the sense of empowerment that it creates in the player's mind, and the new sense of "ownership" that the player feels, are important parts of the maturation process for student-athletes. My experience has been that the majority of players leave these meetings with a better understanding of their role on the team and a better understanding of the program's priorities and philosophy; they have also gained useful information on their performance and the coach's expectations.

Some coaches might be concerned that these private conversations could lead to distrust among the players, especially those players who think the meeting is nothing more than an opportunity for the coach to pry, or for teammates to unfairly "self-promote" or "rat" on other players. Regardless, the benefits of these private meetings far outweigh any concern that teammates are "badmouthing" other players. It is up to the coach to use any "delicate" information in such a way that it cannot be traced back to any particular player, and frankly coaches should never be asking questions that will be potentially divisive.

And finally, given all the recent attention to bullying and hazing, and the strict penalties now being enforced by schools and State Associations, it is crucial to use this time to find out if there have been incidents of inappropriate treatment of teammates. The anonymity that these meetings provide offers an opportunity to learn things that you would otherwise be unlikely to learn.

Regardless of the sport, drama is an undeniable feature of the relationship among players. In sports like lacrosse or soccer, drama among players could lead to passes not made, less teamwork on defense, and jealousies that will injure the sense of “team” that is vital for success. In sports like tennis, where individuals are expected to play with a sense of honor and honesty, where competition for positions in the lineup can be cutthroat, and where on some teams there are players who are “part timers,” gaining greater insight into player motivation is essential. And for those tennis coaches making use of video, these meetings would also provide an opportunity for instruction.

Effective communication is the essence of any strong relationship, regardless of whether we are talking about a marriage, a retail store, or a sports team. Every coach must take the time to meet with every member of her team. The benefits for both parties might be small, or they might be substantial, but the bottom line is that each player deserves the respect that a meeting would represent. The players, and their parents, will also respect you more for doing it. So meet with the players, and reap the benefits of a team full of empowered athletes playing their hearts out for their


Monday, November 3, 2014

Thinking About Being A Coach: Follow This Guide and You'll Do Just Fine

I remember the winter of 1991 like it was yesterday. After four years of teaching, I was finally being offered a chance to coach. Two positions were open, one to coach the boys tennis team, the other to coach a new sport at the school, boys lacrosse.  

Frankly, I knew nothing about lacrosse; I don’t think I had ever seen a game. Tennis, on the other hand, was in my blood. I had a racquet in my hand at the age of five, had spent two summers at Chase Tennis Center, played four years of varsity doubles, and would clearly fit the profile of a tennis junkie. Tennis would have been the easy choice, but I remember the experience of my varsity coach in high school and decided to steer clear.
With over two decades of coaching now “under my belt,” and after spending many, many Friday afternoons commiserating with other coaches, I have come to learn that regardless of the sport, there was a lot that we had in common in terms of the skills we needed if we were to succeed.

John Wooden famously referred to himself as a teacher, not a coach, to better emphasize the valuable role he commanded. A successful coach, much like a successful teacher, must find a way to “connect”. It is only then that a coach will be able to prepare their players for success and teach the life lessons that are so much a part of a coach’s responsibilities.
So after decades of coaching and exchanging ideas with other coaches, I have identified 5 characteristics that I believe are necessary components of successful coaching. Regardless of the sport, anyone interested in learning to be an effective coach must strive to master these fundamental ideas.

The first characteristic is passion: passion for the sport and passion for the role of coach. The enthusiasm a coach projects to his players is infectious, and it must be evident at practice even more so than on game day. Practice must be more than something athletes know they must do, it is something they must look forward to attending. This is especially true in today’s environment, where so many young athletes- for better or worse- have begun to specialize in one sport to the point where one’s enthusiasm wanes and the sports takes on the feel of a job.
A successful coach must also be knowledgeable. Coaches must be aware of both the skills and strategies the players must master. Being able to teach proper technique, detect and correct errors, and build winning strategies based on a player’s skills and an opponent’s weaknesses are all responsibilities of a coach regardless of the level.

Organizational skills are an overlooked but essential quality for a successful coach. Organization includes a well-structured practice, creating fair and enforceable rules for the team, having a protocol for dealing with parents, and planning out a season much like a teacher would plan a unit in math or history.
In the past the idea of empowering players was given little attention, but in today’s world it is an essential quality for any successful program. Players need to know that they are more than passive members of a team but are decision makers, whether on the court, at practice, or in the locker room. Captains must have real responsibilities, and players must be able to express their individuality and see that their personalities can contribute to the team’s success rather than as a threat to a team’s cohesion.

And finally, a successful coach must be resourceful. Whether referring to tools to benefit their players’ training, human resources to help teach, or activities to help stir passion, coaches must always be seeking out new and creative resources to inspire and educate the team.
Coaching young athletes has become the most fulfilling and inspiring experience of my adult life. There are simple keys to success in coaching, keys that anyone with the desire can learn and master. But you must master them all. The impact a coach can have on young hearts and minds makes it a challenge I encourage everyone to consider. The rewards will last a lifetime.